A 74-Year-Old Tennessee Woman, Wrongfully Convicted For Murdering A Child, Is Exonerated After 27 Years In Prison

Joyce Watkins, a 74-year-old woman who spent 27 years in prison after she was wrongfully convicted of murdering her great-niece, was exonerated this week in Tennessee, CNN reports. Watkins’ victory comes after she reached out to the Tennessee Innocence Project in November to seek justice for herself and her boyfriend Charlie Dunn, who also spent 27 years in prison after he was convicted for the murder of 4-year-old Brandi. 

The child was living at the home of her great-aunt, Rose Williams, in 1987 while her mother was staying in Georgia. An official from the Kentucky Department of Social Services visited Williams’ home at the time after receiving a report about Brandi being abused. But Williams cleared her name after telling officials that the child’s injuries happened during a playground accident. 

Watkins and Dunn picked up Brandi from her relative’s house in Kentucky on June 26, 1987 and took her to their home to spend some time together. When the child became unresponsive the next morning, Watkins took her to Nashville Memorial Hospital.

That’s when doctors found severe vaginal injury and head trauma. After the child was pronounced dead, medical examiner Dr. Gretel Harlan determined that Brandi’s injuries were sustained when she spent time with the couple. Watkins and Dunn were convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated rape a year later.

After spending 27 years in prison, Watkins was granted parole in 2015. Dunn, however, died behind bars earlier that year. 

Watkins was still required to register with the state as a sex offender after being released, People reports. Hoping to clear her name, as well as Dunn’s, the Tennessee woman moved forward with her effort to find justice. Medical experts have now concluded that Dr. Harlan’s “methodology for dating the head injury based upon a lack of histiocytic response in the brain tissue is not a legitimate method for dating pediatric head trauma.”

“I wish my daddy was here to witness this day,” Dunn’s daughter, Jackie Dunn, said at the hearing on Jan. 12. “He knew he was innocent, he knew he did not commit those crimes.”

Additionally, the court said Harlan later admitted to the mistake she made in her methodology. 

“Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn are innocent,” District Attorney Glenn Funk told CNN, “We cannot give Ms. Watkins or Mr. Dunn their lost years but we can restore their dignity; we can restore their names. Their innocence demands it.”

Watkins is the first Black woman to ever be exonerated in Tennessee, according to the District Attorney’s Office. She is also the third woman to be exonerated in the state’s history.

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